EMDR Therapy

What is EMDR and how might it be helpful for me?


What is EMDR?

EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy) is an evidence-based  psychological therapy which targets the distress and disturbance caused by past traumatic events. EMDR is recognised as an effective treatment for trauma by the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Who can benefit from it?

EMDR has been demonstrated to be particularly helpful for people who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a condition in which memories of distressing events from the past are extremely vivid, sometimes to the point where it feels like the events are still happening. Trauma can be a single incident, such as a car crash, or it can be complex, meaning the events were ongoing for many years, such as in the case of childhood abuse or neglect. EMDR has also been demonstrated to be helpful with a range of psychological difficulties that are influenced by traumatic events that took place earlier in life such as anxiety, depression and high self-criticism.

How does it work?

At the core of EMDR is the Adaptive-Information Processing (AIP) model which proposes that the way we process information is key to understanding trauma. According to the AIP model, new experiences get added to a ‘memory network’ of other similar information, and this joining of new and old information helps us to adaptively process the new event. Our memory networks contain memories of what we see alongside emotions, bodily sensations and strategies for coping with the new environment and as such offer guidance in the new situation. For example, if we go on holiday to a new country, we can use knowledge from our previous travel abroad to make sense of what happens in the new situation. In this way, we can improve at things like using a different currency or language by drawing on our past experience of these things.

In traumatic situations, the information processing system does not work in the same way because our brain’s ability to process information is less effective in dangerous or distressing situations.  In these situations, thoughts, feelings and coping strategies from the traumatic event get stored alone and therefore do not have the guidance of adaptive information from other previous experiences. When these stand-alone memories get activated or ‘triggered’, it can be common to have the experience of being back in the traumatic situation and feel frozen, stuck or helpless.

An analogy might be helpful to describe this. Imagine you are planning to put your laundry away. You gather it up, intending to put it all in its proper place, but then the fire alarm goes off in your house and you have to leave suddenly. You shove the big ball of laundry into a cupboard. Since it hasn’t been processed properly, it doesn’t fit and keeps pushing the door open and spilling back out. Memories of traumatic events can be a bit like this. They keep spilling back out into the present because they haven’t been processed/put away properly.

The aim of EMDR therapy is to process traumatic memories and link information from memory networks, enabling the traumatic incident to be adaptively processed and the memory to be emotionally neutralised.

What happens in a session?

EMDR is different to other therapies in that it utilizes a process called Bilateral Stimulation (BLS for short) for processing emotions. This involves engaging both sides of the body and brain at the same time, often through side to side eye movement, tapping on both sides of the body, playing sounds in each ear, or a combination of these things. Focusing on BLS means that a person’s attention is taxed, and this means they can recall the traumatic event while having one foot in the present. This means that a person can tolerate higher levels of distressing material and process the material more effectively as a result.

How long does it take?

Research tells us that EMDR can significantly reduce the distress of people with single-incident PTSD after just 2-3 sessions. However, if the trauma has been longer-lasting and/or more complex, the therapy will take significantly longer. Your therapist will discuss your treatment plan at your first session.

Who will I be working with?

At Evidence-Based Therapy Centre, we have several therapists qualified in EMDR, for more see here:

Dr Roisin Joyce, Lisa Healy, Anthony Burke, Brendan Clarke, Dr Anne O’ Boyle

How can I find out more?

If you’d like to hear about research on EMDR, or about other people’s experience of using this therapy, there are a lot of resources on the EMDR Ireland page. Follow the links below for some good examples.